Hansen grew up and attended school in central Iowa, where he also started his teaching career.
“I had a high school teacher and mentor who inspired me to go into music,” Hansen said in an interview last month. “He left and went to Vegas, then went to Big Piney for seven years. When he was leaving (Big Piney), he called me up and asked if I wanted a job. I decided, ‘I do.’”
That move to Big Piney — “neither big nor piney” — was the beginning of a career path that would lead Hansen to Powell and Northwest College a few years later.
He came to Northwest as bands director, a title he still holds after 31 years at the college. But, since then, he’s added several more: music professor, chairman of the NWC performing and Visual Arts Division, founder of the Yellowstone Summer Music Camp and Jazz Camps, the NWC Brass Festival and the Northwest Jazz Festival, member of the Wyoming Arts Council Board and, most recently, Wyoming Music Educator of the Year, North Big Horn Basin District Music Educator of the Year and Wyoming Jazz Educator of the Year.
Along the way, he also has served on boards for the National Association of Schools of Music, the International Association of Jazz Educators, Music Educators National Conference and several other organizations, and he has served as an adjudicator for music festivals and competitions. He also has conducted all-state jazz bands in Colorado and Montana.
Hansen came to teach at Northwest after meeting former NWC music instructors Mike Masterson and Tom Bibbey, who came to Big Piney during Hansen’s time there.
Masterson, who has since retired from Northwest, said he and Bibbey were looking for a band director when they heard about Hansen’s band program in Big Piney.
“We were traveling with our band and concert choir, and we stopped by Big Piney. We played great, and Neil’s band played great. They just blew the snot out of things. They had maturity, and maturity in the soloists,” he said.
“Tom and I said, ‘We need to make sure he knows we want him. He knows Wyoming; he’s got a great program, and he knows how to talk about it.’
“We knew he would be able to get kids excited. He would be able to recruit students across the state and out of state.”
Hansen’s communication skills enhance his teaching, Masterson said.
“He has a way of challenging students and making them laugh, and smile, and then making them work,” he said.
Masterson said Hansen also is able to communicate the sounds he wants students to achieve with their instruments.
“He says things like, ‘Make this sound more like hammering on a chair,’” Masterson said. “He had all kinds of analogies he would use; he’s the king of analogies.”
Hansen said he’d had his eye on Powell for a few years before his arrival in 1982. He had come through Cody and into Montana during a 1975 vacation.
“I remember looking at a map and seeing there was a college in Powell and thought, ‘Hey, that would be a great place to live.’ Seven years later, here I was.”
In addition to directing bands at Northwest, Hansen soon set about expanding the music program at the college. He created music camps and festivals, and attracted professional — and often famous — musicians to perform at those camps and festivals.
“It used to scare the heck out of me to bring in these pros,” he said. “Now, it doesn’t bother me. It’s exciting; it’s fun.”
He also has brought in bands representing the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force, as well as other groups.
“I was excited about each one, whether it was a military group, Gordon Goodwin’s band or Buddy Rich,” Hansen said.
That has been true of each performer or group he has brought to the college, up to and including the Muldovan musicians who performed earlier this semester, he said.
Hansen said he was given freedom at Northwest College to explore and try new things.
“The college has provided a framework here, that I’ve been able to do a lot of things I would not have been allowed to try in other places. I’ve had to grow,” he said. “Not everything succeeded, but those that did, now we’re seeing the second generation (of students) there.”
The Yellowstone Jazz Camp has been so successful that Hansen has been asked to do presentations to help other institutions start their own camps.
Masterson said Hansen “surpassed even our high expectations. He was better than we expected. The Northwest Jazz Band wins awards every time they go to the Greeley Jazz Festival,” as well as other music festivals and competitions.
Hansen said his accomplishments were made possible thanks to the help of the great people he worked with in the music department — people like Masterson and Bibbey, Ronnie Bedford, Tim Schoessler, Jan Kliewer and Rob Rumbolz.
As much as he has enjoyed his work, Hansen said he is looking forward to having time to travel with his wife, Kathy, just for fun.
Kathy is retiring this spring as well.
“We’ve been traveling only to visit family or on business,” he said. “Now we can actually go to places and events that other people have organized.”
Looking back at his time at the college, Hansen said his memories center around groups of students who played in bands and performed together.
Unlike other teachers who focus individually on separate students, for him, “every group is like a family,” he said.
Looking forward, Hansen said he hopes people continue to support the NWC music program, as they have for him.
“Private donors have made a difference for our students through their donations for scholarships,” he said. “Most of the students here are here because of our scholarships. It’s made a huge difference. That’s why I can say I feel positive about the program moving forward.”
But one dream never has come true, Hansen said.
“When I interviewed here, there was a mock-up of a fine arts center. It never happened. Oil prices dropped,” and so did talk of the new fine arts center.
But it’s still badly needed, he said.
“That would be a great legacy for those of us who have worked hard here, to see that happen over the next five years or so,” he said.